Heralding the ‘lost history’ of early black aviators

William Powell, an black aviator, encouraged African Americans not just to become pilots, but also mechanics, and to create aviation companies and airfields.

By Clay Evans

Philip Hart remembers growing up in east Denver and hearing his mother, grandmother and aunt talking about his great uncle James Herman Banning, a pioneer in African American aviation in the early years of the 20th century.

Yet when he went looking for more information on Banning as a teenager on library shelves at Denver East High School and the Denver Public Library, he found virtually no information about him.

Philip Hart, who graduated from CU-Boulder in 1966 with a degree in sociology, is one of the nation’s foremost experts of early black aviators.

“I found a lot about his contemporaries Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart, but I wasn’t finding a thing about him,” says Hart, who graduated from CU-Boulder in 1966 with a degree in sociology and later earned a Ph.D. from Michigan State University. “That really spurred my interest in finding out more about him and his peers.”

Nearly half a century later, Hart, 69, is one of the nation’s foremost experts in what was once a forgotten history. With three books for young readers and a celebrated 1987 PBS documentary, “Flyers in Search of a Dream,” to his credit, Hart recently was commissioned to create a photo essay telling the story of early African American aviators by the Oxford University Press African American Studies Center. The essay will appear online in October.

“The essay will span the period from 1912 to World War II, featuring 10 aviators,” including Banning and his mechanic Thomas C. Allen — who were the first black pilots to fly coast to coast from Los Angeles to Long Island in 1932 — Bessie Coleman and William Powell. Hart took early retirement as a professor from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2002 and now lives in Los Angeles and Boston with his wife Tanya Hart, host of media programs as “Live from LA with Tanya Hart” and “Hollywood Live with Tanya Hart.”

Powell’s story is particularly illuminating, Hart says. While working on his documentary film he met the flyer’s son in Los Angeles, which was, along with Chicago, the center of black aviation in the first half of the 20th century.

“He went out to the garage and brought a film can to me. ‘This is film my father shot about black pilots in the 1930s.’ The film itself was crumbling, close to unusable. He said if I had it restored and gave him a copy I could do whatever I wanted with it,” says Hart.

The film turned out to be a 15-minute silent educational movie, “Unemployment, the Negro and Aviation.” Powell was more than a pilot; he was an entrepreneur. And he could see that aviation was going to become an enormous industry.

“He was looking ahead. If he could convince black people to get involved with it in its infancy, it was going to be a big deal. This was in the middle of the Great Depression,” Hart says. The film encouraged African Americans not just to become pilots, but also mechanics, and to create aviation companies and airfields.

Unlike the more famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, Hart says, the early aviators had to be self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

“Nobody gave them airplanes to fly, fuel and oil, or fixed them. They had to buy everything themselves,” he says. The first all-black airshow was held at an east side L.A. airport in 1931. “African Americans were involved almost from the beginning.”

Despite that remarkable history and more attention to the subject, including a widely praised 1982 Smithsonian Institute Air and Space Museum exhibit, “Black Wings,” to which Hart was a contributor, and Hart’s film, writing and research, he says many Americans still know nothing about this “lost history.”

But thanks to Hart’s childhood curiosity, a child searching today for information about the early African American flyers can find a lot more than he did when he went looking for information.

“It’s come a long way. But tomorrow I might find something new. It’s a never-ending story,” Hart says. “History is a very dynamic thing for me.”

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